The National Post

Saturday, January 1, 2000
 

Photo: Allison Leach, People Weekly / Peter Fong of Pennsylvania's Gettysburg College found clams reproduce 10 times faster on Prozac.
Weird science and fiction:
Marc Abrahams, editor of the scientific world's Mad magazine, highlights improbable research, including the work of one scientist who administered Prozac to clams and another who 'proved' water has memory

by Andy Lamey
 

'Ejaculation is difficult to perform on the rhinoceros."  It is 10:00 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and a grown man is making this fact known to the Chemical Institute of Canada, Toronto Section, whose members are scattered around a meeting room at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus.

The sentence is written on a slide and projected on a screen in front of the audience of reserved, fiftysomething men and women. It is the first line of a densely titled scientific report, "Monitoring electroejaculation in the rhinoceros using ultrasonography." The lecturer reads the sentence aloud so everyone can hear, and asks them to recall the advice they received early in their careers about the value of a good lead sentence in a scientific report.

"And so we recommend that every time you write a report, no matter the topic, use this sentence," he says. The chemists, quiet until now, burst out in unrestrained laughter.

Marc Abrahams strikes again.

In addition to giving 15 to 20 lectures a year on weird science, Abrahams, 43, is the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), often called the Mad magazine of science. As Abrahams likes to describe it, one-third of the research in AIR is genuine, one-third is concocted, "and one-third of our readers can't tell the difference."

AIR often cites the work of actual scientists with seemingly idiosyncratic research agendas. Recent highlights include:

- "The child as a projectile," R.E. Tibbs Jr., D.E. Haines and A.D. Parent, Anatomatical Record Volume 253, Number 6, December 1998, pp. 167-75.

- "The main parameters of winking," (in Russian) S.I. Kruglov and A.K. Khannolainen, Gigiena Truda I Professionalnye Zabolevaniia, Vol. 7, 1990, p. 49.

AIR is probably best known for the Ig Noble prizes, awarded annually to achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced." Last year's headline-making Canadian winner, Steve Penfold of York University in Toronto, won in the sociology category for doing his History PhD on the sociology of Canadian doughnut shops. Penfold, like many other winners, travelled to Harvard University in Boston to receive the award, handed out by real Nobel Laureates.

In his lectures, Abrahams gives a rundown of the most recent Ig Nobel winners, plus old favourites. His slide show features a scientist who administered Prozac to clams, another who "proved" water has memory.

Abrahams is especially fond of Troy Hurtubise, the Northern Ontario creator of a grizzly bear-proof suit of armour, for which he won a 1998 Ig Nobel. Abrahams shows documentary footage of Hurtubise being attacked with baseball bats and a giant log, and rammed by speeding pickup trucks with mattresses mounted on the hood. His suit protects him in all such situations, even if it also prevents him from standing up after he is knocked down (a rather frequent occurrence).

"Canada and Ontario, the province of Ontario, is emerging as a leading centre for the production of this kind of work, and I think that's a good thing for the world," says Abrahams.

In his magazine and on his Web page (www.improbable.com), Abrahams has been mocking millennial mania by tracking items that inexplicably include 2000 in their name (such as the "ultimate muzzleloading 2000 series rifles").

In a similar millennial spirit, we offer a sampling of AIR's greatest hits, selected by Abrahams and the National Post. With one exception, all are citations of real research undertaken by actual scientists. (Readers are invited to try to pick the fake. The answer will be published in next Saturday's paper.)
 

Black & White Photo: Alexandru C. Stan / Grover? An actual microscopic photograph shows Gliobastoma multiforme, a type of brain tumour. It appeared in the first edition of AIR, in 1995.

Black & White Photo: Air / Peter Fong of Pennsylvania's Gettysburg College found clams reproduce 10 times faster on Prozac.

Cats and bearded men

This is an excerpt from "Feline reactions to bearded men," by  Catherine Maloney et al. of Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn.

Summary: Cats were exposed to photographs of bearded men. The cats' responses were recorded and analyzed.

Current findings of prior investigators: There is an extensive body  of prior research on the topic. In 1955, Seuss found inconclusive results in studying feline reactions to hats...

Methods: Each cat was given a private viewing of the photographs. The photographs were shown one at a time, always in the same order. Each photograph was displayed for exactly 60 seconds.

Figure 7: (Picture above) A subject reacts to a photograph of a bearded man. To standardize the viewing process, each cat was held by our laboratory assistant. The cats' reactions were assessed for changes in pulse rate, respiration, eye dilation, fur shed rate and qualitative behavior. The research work was conducted over a span of eight months.

Conclusion: We conclude that, basically, cats are indifferent to photographs of bearded men.

     -- AIR, Vol. V, Number 5, pp. 7-11.
 
 

Black & White Photo: Air / George Goble lights a charcoal
burner with a bucket of liquid oxygen at the end of a long plank.
The fastest man alive at lighting a charcoal burner

George Goble, a Perdue University computer engineer in Indiana, won the 1996 chemistry Ig Nobel award for an innovation one local newspaper described as "really, really dangerous."

From an Indianapolis Star article posted at Goble's Web site:

Goble's claim to fame is that he's the fastest man alive at lighting a charcoal burner. He got briquettes burning in three seconds by using liquid oxygen. After charcoal is placed in a burner, Goble has someone toss a lighted cigarette into the briquettes. "Then I pour liquid oxygen from a three-gallon galvanized bucket hanging from a pole about 10 feet long,"
he said.
Goble, 42, got the idea after cooking out with engineer pals for several years. "It always took half an hour to 40 minutes to get the thing going, so we started using hair driers, a vacuum on low and propane torches to get it going," he said. "Then we took an oxygen tank like the kind scuba divers use and blew it through a 10-foot-long pipe. We were grilling in 30 seconds. Every year we got it faster until we got it down to a few seconds with so much pressure that it blew the briquettes out of the grill."

Local and state fire officials are not impressed. "The fire department is really ticked off, so I'm not going to do it any more," he said.
 

AIR's most improbable selection

- "The Santa Claus syndrome. Entrapment in chimneys," Lauren Boglioli and Mark Taff. "We report a case of a man who became trapped in a chimney during a burglary attempt and died a delayed death due to postural asphyxia associated with inhalational and burn injuries and anterior compartment syndrome. An analysis of this unusual case is presented."
     -- Journal of Forensic Sciences, Vol. 40, Number 3, May 1995, pp. 499-500.

- "Sartorial eloquence: Does it exist in the paediatrician-patient relationship?" T.G. Barrett and I.W. Booth. "Advice to junior doctors might be that, if they are lacking self-confidence, a white coat may give an air of competence and concern; casual clothes make them appear friendly but not competent. These findings may be helpful to doctors in deciding what to wear in everyday hospital practice."
     -- British Medical Journal, Vol. 309, 1994, pp. 1710-2.

- "Viagra makes flowers stand up straight," Judy Siegel-Itzkovich. "One milligram of the drug (compared with 50 mg in one pill taken by  impotent men) in a solution was enough to prevent two vases of cut flowers from wilting for as much as a week longer than might be expected."
     -- British Medical Journal, Vol. 319, Number 7205, July 31, 1999, p. 274A.

- "Physiology of rectal sensations: A mathematical approach," G.N. Rao et al. "Evaluation of rectal sensations should be confined to CS [constant flatus sensation] and UD [urge to defecate] because MTT [maximum tolerated threshold] is painful and does not contribute any additional information, and FS [first sensation, first awareness of balloon inflation] is not a true rectal phenomenon."
     -- Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, Vol. 40, Number 3, March 1997, pp. 298-306.

- "The self/nonself discrimination: reconstructing a cabbage from sauerkraut," M. Cohn.
     -- Research in Immunology, Vol. 143, Number 3, March 1992, pp. 323-34.

- "Precautions when lightning strikes during the monsoon: the effect of ozone on condoms," by R.F. Baker, R.P. Sherwin, G.S. Bernstein et al.
     -- Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 260, Number 10.
 
 

Dog days in science

- "Dog bites to the male genitalia: Characteristics, management and comparison to human bites," J. Stuart Wolf Jr. et al. "Considering that the jaws of a biting dog can develop forces up to 400 pounds per square inch, it is surprising injuries to the genitalia, serious as many of them have been, are not more severe... Victims of human bites often seek medical care only after a substantial delay but dog bite victims do so immediately. Embarrassment about the former injury and fright regarding the latter probably have a role in this."
     -- The Journal of Urology, Vol. 149, 1993, pp. 286-289.

- "Dogs judge books by their covers," Arnold S. Chamove. "To assess whether animals respond to humans who wear clothing with animal-like warning patterns, 22 impounded dogs and 15 living in kennels were tested... Results showed dogs responded more strongly primarily with submission to people wearing narrow, regular striped shirts than to those with wider stripes, irregular stripes, spots, or to nonwarning patterns of similar composition."
     -- Anthrozooes, Vol. 10, Number 1, 1997, pp. 50-2.

- "Dogs: God's worst enemies?" Sophia Menache. "In a broad survey  of negative hostile attitudes toward canines in pagan, Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, the author posits that warm ties between humans and canines have been seen as a threat to the authority of the clergy and indeed, God."
     -- Society & Animals, Vol. 5, Number 1, 1997.